Counting the Threats from Intelligence Services

CNN’s web site has an interesting item on the nature of the foreign intelligence hacking threat to US interests. It reports Joel Brenner, National Counterintelligence Executive, as saying that it’s not accurate to blame only the Chinese Government for recent penetrations of government systems. The reality is that about 140 foreign intelligence organizations are trying to hack into US computer networks. They are too easy to hack and the number of world-class hackers is multiplying at bewildering speed.

Of course this is only to be expected. Hacking is cheap, fast and can be carried out remotely. And the necessary skills are becoming widespread. In just a couple of years time Nicholas Negroponte’s one laptop per child initiative will hopefully have issued millions of networked laptops to children across several developing countries. Fast-forward several years and even the smallest intelligence services will have access to unprecedented levels of computer skills. Today we’re just scratching the surface of the real potential for cyber espionage and information warfare. As Alvin Toffler pointed out many years ago, it might even dominate the 21st Century.

Perhaps the only item in doubt is the actual number of countries in the world, which, interestingly, can range anywhere from 189 to 266 depending on your source. But whichever number you accept, it represents a lot of competing national interests.

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While I acknowledge the threat from foreign intelligence services against government and other high value economic, commercial and R&D targets you do not need to fast forward several years in order for smaller, less technologically capable national intelligence agencies to have an offensive capability. Given the growing community of rent-a-hackers out there it is just as easy for them to be hired by a foreign paymaster and tasked with a specific operation. And given the need for plausible denialibility, outsourcing your covert information gathering operations might be the right way forward. As for Negroponte's OLPC initiative increasing computer skills I can not think of a better thing to do (in order to mitigate risk). I would much rather have the OLPC give out as many laptops as possible in order to provide educational and academic opportunities for less developed nations to better themselves thus helping to redress the balance and start providing future enhancing opportunity. In many grass root ways Nicholas Negroponte is helping to mitigate geopolitical risks arising from failed or failing states or retrenchment from globalisation (for example) which are far bigger risks to us than any foreign intelligence service will ever be.
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